Long ago, I was raised in a “non-denominational” evangelical Christian church, which inspired me to gleefully espouse fundamentalist theology for the first 18 years of my life. I believed in exotic concepts like vicarious redemption, predestination, and parthenogenesis, and I knew God had a plan for my life. I completely trusted my invisible confidant, Jesus Christ, and the whole arrangement made me feel warm, fuzzy, and docile.
I began incrementally questioning this aspect of my upbringing while attending art college during the reign of George Bush II. Soon enough, I found myself inspired by liberation theology, and shifted toward a more progressive view of Christianity. I attended Iraq War protests and wrote an op-ed for the school newspaper entitled “Jesus Christ vs. George W. Bush,” — a hot take on the incompatible actions and ideologies of the two famous men.
Continuing to wholeheartedly believe in a personal God and the teachings of Jesus, I refocused my evolving religious outlook to the “Love your neighbor”-style material, and eschewed the fire and brimstone elements I had previously valued. But I eventually began to wonder why I believed in a specific supernatural entity in the first place. After all, there certainly wasn’t sufficient evidence to warrant such a notion. Maybe it was vestigial faith from the environment and culture I found myself in.
After years of research and soul searching, I finally surmised that religion was simply an ever-evolving tale of the most ubiquitous dichotomy in human history: light vs. darkness. It was a meticulously crafted escape from our collective fear of death and a tribute to our stubbornness in the face of troubling uncertainties. To paraphrase the late Christopher Hitchens (whom I strongly disagreed with on many topics, by the way), religion was our first and worst attempt to explain reality.
Religion often brings communities closer together and comforts those who face the worst life has to offer. Karl Marx wrote that religion is the opiate of the people because it provides great relief to those who are suffering spiritually, just as opium did (during Marx’s time) for those suffering physically. But religion has its downsides too, as it has often been used to justify tribalism, social control, homophobia, misogyny, patriarchy, violence, and arbitrary submission to authority.
I have had many robust and compelling discussions with religious friends and family members over the years, but for me, it always came back to this issue of evidence (or lack thereof). The skepticism I had developed wasn’t a result of being “mad at God,” as was sometimes suggested, but was instead based on the famous Carl Sagan quote, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Religion doesn’t even have ordinary evidence on its side, which brings me to another relevant observation, sometimes known as Hitchens's razor: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” In other words, the burden of proof is on the originator of any given claim. Until valid and compelling evidence is presented, I will remain skeptical of any supernatural claim made by religious texts and their proponents.
Russiagate: a modern faith-based political narrative
The first big scoop in the Russiagate story was in October of 2016, when unnamed U.S. intelligence officials claimed to be “confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations.” Immediately, as I recall, the barrage of government statements was regarded as gospel by the mainstream news media. Suddenly, the intuitive skepticism I had developed during my religious “deconversion” process came rushing back.
Over the years and decades, U.S. intelligence officials have lied about WMD in Iraq, domestic surveillance, torture, rendition, Iran-Contra, hiring Nazi scientists, testing LSD on unwitting victims, and of course, their calling card: supporting a broad array of dictators, death squads, terrorists, and drug cartels throughout the world. The default government retort to these and other issues is usually “something, something, national security interests.” However, regardless of any flimsy justification for their crimes against humanity, the only reasonable response to statements made by anyone even vaguely associated with the U.S. intelligence community should be, “Hmm, I wonder if they’re lying again.”
Nevertheless, I remained open to evidence (and still do). There have certainly been some noteworthy developments in the story. For instance, the Steele dossier was an instant classic among Democrats. But it was developed by the Democrat-funded opposition research firm Fusion GPS, and is full of errors and uncorroborated claims. The January 2017 intelligence report made headlines as well. But, as The Atlantic noted, “it does not or cannot provide evidence for its assertions.” The Washington Post published a story about how Russia disseminated massive amounts of “fake news” during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But it turned out to be false. They published another about Russian hackers penetrating the U.S. electric grid. That one turned out to be false as well.
Such retractions weren’t rare; three CNN journalists even resigned in shame after “an internal investigation by CNN management found that some standard editorial processes were not followed” in their publication of a Russia-related story that was later retracted. But that debacle didn’t stop the network from hyping up another false story several months later. Rather than alleged “collusion” between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, the Russiagate story started being about journalistic malpractice, partisanship, and paranoia.
Here we are, 15 months after the election, with four indictments in the Trump-Russia probe, and evidence for the central Russiagate narrative is still as elusive as ever. And yet a dogmatic belief in the original conspiracy theory persists, elevating Russiagate to the status of a faith-based religion for conventional American liberals and Democratic Party loyalists.
A major difference between Russiagate and actual religions is that Russiagate could be true. This might be a rare situation in which agents of the national security state are making factually accurate claims. But why spend so much time covering allegations that might be true, as MSNBC and other corporate news media outlets love to do (especially when actual verifiable collusion has already occurred)? Why are mainstream liberals and Democrats so hellbent on this notion of Trump and Putin working together to undermine our electoral process? Well, when Hillary Clinton, who seemed to be a presidential shoe-in, lost the 2016 election to a racist and narcissistic sexual predator, the Democratic establishment desperately needed an explanation. Or, better yet, an excuse. As Aaron Maté explained in The Nation:
“Recognizing this absence of evidence helps examine what has been substituted in its place. Shattered, the insider account of the Clinton campaign, reports that ‘in the days after the election, Hillary declined to take responsibility for her own loss.’ Instead, one source recounted, aides were ordered ‘to make sure all these narratives get spun the right way.’ Within 24 hours of Clinton’s concession speech, top officials gathered ‘to engineer the case that the election wasn’t entirely on the up-and-up.[…] Already, Russian hacking was the centerpiece of the argument.’”
The prospect of a foreign power hijacking American democracy might be terrifying, but apparently not as terrifying as looking in the mirror. For instance, if members of the Democratic establishment engaged in self-reflection, it would realize its complicity in our epidemic of wealth concentration and the devastation of the working class through neoliberal economics, its complicity in grave racial injustices and human rights violations through the War on Drugs and mass incarceration, and its responsibility for the 2008 financial crisis due to the repeal of Glass–Steagall under president Bill Clinton. All of these policies have painfully chipped away at the tiny speck of the “American Dream” that once remained. The Democratic establishment may also realize its complicity in imperialistic and unjustifiable wars of aggression that have left hundreds of thousands dead, wreaked unfathomable chaos and destruction, created ISIS, and paved the way for the re-emergence of the slave trade in Libya.
Clinton apologists constantly bragged about Hillary’s “qualifications” during that fateful 2016 presidential campaign. When this sentiment is stripped of its euphemistic nature, it ends up simply meaning that this celebrated and accomplished politician would be an efficient conduit for the wholesale destruction of various nations — including our own. For those whose standard of living had consistently declined, decade after decade, at the hands of neoliberal Washington consensus, the aforementioned prospect was extraordinarily easy to vote against. We didn’t need a foreign boogeyman; the true enemy had been in our midst all along.
Evidence-based inquiry is the hallmark of human progress. It is the basis for the scientific method, the foundation of historical analysis, and it should play a central role in politics as well. When we engage in large-scale wishful thinking, confirmation bias, and evidence-free belief, we unwittingly step into the realm of creationists and climate change deniers, and that’s dangerous territory. Aside from being a wasteful distraction, the Russiagate narrative is indeed proving to have additional detrimental consequences.
If we believe in Russiagate without evidence, what’s to stop us from blindly swallowing the next unfounded justifications for war? Remember: about 43% of congressional Democrats voted for the invasion of Iraq in 2002, which turned out the be a neoconservative fantasy, justified with fabricated intelligence. At this moment, Russia hysteria is developing into a new Cold War, and the Doomsday Clock has recently been moved to two minutes before midnight. The ominous threat of nuclear annihilation seems to represent an increasingly possible scenario. A consistent demand for evidence is not only a crucial tool in developing a more complete understanding of reality; it may also be necessary for survival.